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What are primary sources?

What are primary sources?

Primary sources are works of human endeavor that were created at the time or very close to the time that is studied. A primary source can be any of the following: a written account, a published account, an image, an artifact, a work of art, the physical environment and the built environment, a human being. What constitutes a primary source is hard to define and is often arbitrary. It may indeed change as the source is used.

Some examples of primary sources include:

  • Written accounts—diaries, letters, ledgers, account books, notes, vital records.
  • Published accounts— any written account that was published as well as newspapers, books, periodicals, almanacs, cookbooks, broadsides, travel books, childrens literature, novels, poetry, pamphlets, sermons, advertisements.
  • Images—paintings, drawings, photographs, lithographs, woodcuts, maps, video, film.
  • Artifacts— buildings, machines, objects, clothing, weapons.
  • Human beings—anyone alive or whose voice and thoughts were captured by an electronic recording may be considered a primary source for their life experiences. They are, in effect, eyewitnesses to history.


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Last updated November 28, 2003